Island County commissioners consider marijuana moratorium

Island County commissioners have set in motion plans for a moratorium on new marijuana production and sales.

The board was responding to a survey from the Washington State Liquor Control Board in reference to the law created by I-502, a measure approved by voters that allows the use of recreational marijuana.

The state is requesting information about how the county plans to proceed as a jurisdiction in its handling of the new law.

While the commissioners agreed to inform the state of their plans for a moratorium, they have yet to review draft moratoriums or talk about specific regulatory options.

Planning Director David Wechner pointed out that the Oak Harbor City Council passed a six-month moratorium on the opening of both recreational and medical marijuana businesses earlier this month, and that this could be used as a guide for the county.

Commissioner Jill Johnson said that she would be in favor of keeping the moratorium consistent with one recently adopted by Oak Harbor.

“There may be some advantage to following the same model,” Johnson said. “My feeling is that sticking with the moratorium approach that Oak Harbor took might be the best for us at this phase.”

Wechner agreed with Johnson.

“If you have two jurisdictions and they are right next to each other and they are approaching it in a different way, it’s going to be confusing for people,” he said.

There might be some wisdom in waiting to see what some of the “bigger, richer” counties end up doing before moving forward, Johnson added.

“I don’t think we need to be the first county out of the gate,” Johnson said. “I’d like to pick up some of their ideas and learn from their initial mistakes before we become trailblazers on this one.”

While attending a recent state planning directors conference, Wechner said he found that many jurisdictions were using the “wait and see approach” as well.

“I think it’s a big game of chicken, frankly, to see who’s going to go first,” Wechner said.

Commissioner Helen Price Johnson said that she supports a moratorium because she believes the county needs to “get their hands around it” before moving forward.

However, she said, “this is an industry I think our community will have some interest in. If you go early, you take advantage of the entrepreneurial aspect of this. But if you do it wrong, it’s hard to reel it back.”

The Municipal Research and Services Center of Washington, which is providing moratorium and regulation templates to local governments, estimates that Island County will likely see four new marijuana production and distribution businesses as a result of the new law.

Commissioner Kelly Emerson said she wants the county to work in conjunction with the Northwest Clean Air Agency, which has been called to medical marijuana farms due to the smell, she said.

It’s necessary to take into account the possible concerns of families with children who may live in proximity to marijuana production or storage areas, Emerson said.

Emerson said a representative from the clean air authority told her that the smell can get quite strong.

“I wondered, ‘can you get a contact high from that?’ We were asking her if she went out and bought Doritos,” Emerson said jokingly.

Price Johnson said she agrees that the health aspects should be considered.

During a moratorium, the commissioners said they would discuss how to regulate marijuana production and distribution, including whether or not to simply treat it as just another agricultural product.

The commissioners may also want to consider some type of buffering regulation because marijuana producers tend to have very high fences, heightened security, bright lights and guard dogs which might be disruptive to neighbors, Wechner said.

“Some really take a military compound approach,” Wechner said.

While the commissioners agreed to address the medical and recreational marijuana issues separately, they have not yet determined whether to adopt a moratorium on both uses.

County staff was asked to gather draft moratoriums from other jurisdictions so the issue can be revisited at a future meeting.


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